Unpublished Pepe Espaliú: from an icon in times of AIDS to a universal creator | Babelia


To meet the deadline, I went to see this exhibition twice, the first time in full assembly with the works close to the walls. And necessity became a virtue: it usually happens with Pepe Espaliú (Córdoba, 1955-1993), who put together his work by reconciling contrary assumptions (pleasure / duty; health / pain; personal / political).

Firstly, because the drawings of the unpublished notebooks that can be seen here for the first time are framed, exposing their backs, also drawn: another good metaphor for his work. Second, because in this way it was easier to appreciate each one as letters or ideograms of the great alphabet and mental atlas of the world of Espaliú that gallery owner Mira Bernabeu later composed with them on the long wall that encloses gallery 1 Mira Madrid (for a reason it is also artist).

His early orphanhood was one of the intimate wounds that all his future work would try to suture.

There are surprising early watercolors in an artist with a reputation for being ascetic (or hermetic, directly): some are very colorful, others grope minimalism and the dry conceptual style that was fashionable in Barcelona in the seventies, when he lived there. One of them (father, mother and son) even tries to reconstruct the scheme of the holy families of the great classical painting of his native Andalusia. And it alludes perhaps to the memory of his early orphanhood, one of the intimate wounds that all his future work would try to suture, as Juan Vicente Aliaga recalls in the text of the publication prepared by the gallery.

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There are also coherent and already mature series, such as those that repaint and transform illustrated sheets of a marquetry manual: the silhouettes are transformed into characters and tell stories and refer to his later work with patronage and Cordovan.

And above all there are leaves and leaves that give off the intensity and urgency and almost the incandescence of his last years of work. Variations on the motifs of the syntax of the Espaliú that we know best: the crutches and the masks, the cages and the syringes, the luminous or lacerated bodies, the stumps and the prostheses that heal or at least rehabilitate.

Pepe Espaliú during the 'performance' 'Carrying', in which he was carried in the arms of various couples of friends and acquaintances in San Sebastián and Madrid in 1992. On the left, wearing glasses, Carmen Romero, then wife of the Prime Minister, Philip Gonzalez.
Pepe Espaliú during the ‘performance’ ‘Carrying’, in which he was carried in the arms of various couples of friends and acquaintances in San Sebastián and Madrid in 1992. On the left, wearing glasses, Carmen Romero, then wife of the Prime Minister, Philip Gonzalez.

The soul is the flesh: Genet said it and Espaliú quoted it in his writings. His entire work is the confirmation —the incarnation— of that idea by way of facts. And more: somehow, his drawings are also the soul of the meat of all his work, his sculptures, his actions, his installations. Those who know her well know that they were not simple works on paper, memorabilia, small formats, erasures of serious projects. Aliaga considered them the “primordial sustenance of his work” in the catalog of the retrospective that she curated at the Reina in 2003, where Marie-Laure Bernadac reeled them as the “common thread” of all her work. Following it is a good way of not getting lost in the labyrinthine world of Espaliú, full of ramifications, unexpected shortcuts, passageways that connect distant rooms.

Here in the gallery, the constellation of the wall of drawings weaves invisible threads with the most well-known sculptures and works in the rooms. It helps to see them again and to understand them better: the almost burnished and hand-stitched leather Saints or the mourning Masks or that bronze bed with the rumpled sheets at the foot and the almost warm hollow of an absent body: an ambiguous and moving image which can mean two things, as Espaliú used to say about the orphaned crutches thrown up against the walls that he sometimes exhibited in life.

The drawings also dismantle some clichés about his work. Stuart Morgan, his early supporter outside of Spain, denied the topic of Espaliú as a confessional and literally autobiographical artist. He selected his works for a memorable collective, rites of passage (in 1995, at the Tate) along with 11 great names of the 20th century: Beuys, Bourgeois or Gober. And in his essay he insisted on the double games and red herrings of a work that is both laconic and polysemic. His drawings are, of course: again and again they dodge the obvious For your life, the navel-gazing and puerile rhetoric of the selfie that bores us and leads us nowhere and to which we are getting used to it by the hard way in so much recent art.

Espaliú shows himself and hides at the same time, as in so many photographs that portray him —or anti-portrait— with his hands hiding his face. He manages however to expose soul and flesh: the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the abject. Desire, illness or death were the rites of passage and transit that he evoked over and over again and they also transpire in his drawings.

In ‘Carrying’ he was so far ahead of affective networks that we run the risk of reducing him to that work

He is usually remembered by the media That carries 1992 in Madrid, with celebrities and the first lady included. Her urban action took to the streets and demanded firmness and solidarity in the face of the AIDS pandemic, a public health problem that was being treated as a biblical curse. He was so far ahead of the famous ethics of care and affective networks that now that he is 30 years old we run the risk of reducing him to that work and tying him to that moment until turning him into something depressing: a period artist.

But Espaliú is the most enduring, most universal and current Spanish artist of his fifth, and luckily many galleries and institutions have continued to reconsider his work since then. His intuitions deserve to be reviewed in each generation, and here we can do it in the light of his most intimate work: the one that always preceded and succeeded the public and the political. He was not 40 and produced relatively little, but this exhibition reminds us that he continues to challenge us and open up many possible readings, and that is the touchstone of the always contemporary classics.

‘Pepe Espaliu. Organic and drive dimension’. Gallery 1 Look. Madrid. Until March 26.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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